Friday, 28 March 2008

My blogual silence for the past week is because I've just returned from a short Easter holiday in Languedoc. We're lucky enough in Britain to get both Good Friday and Easter Monday as bank holidays, so only two days off work allowed us to have almost a week's holiday. In spite of the weather (snow, rain, sleet, hail, the odd spot of sunshine), we had a glorious time. Eight of us, ranging in age from 9 months to 35, stayed in an old house in the village of Caunes Minervois in the foothills of the Montaigne Noire, about 20 minutes outside of Carcasonne. We were lucky enough to be staying right next to this boulangerie, so plenty of fresh bread and croissants.

Carcasonne was just as stunning as I'd heard, wandering around the mediaeval city was amazing. This picture capures a fraction of its splendour.

Of course my best laid reading plans were foiled by the good food, good wine and good company so I actually read practically nothing (though have made a good start on both A Life Reformed and Half of a Yellow Sun for the Chunkster and African reading challenges respectively, so not feeling too guilty!). It was also great fun to read books with my niece (she's literally devouring books - I suppose chewing cardboard helps with teething!) and nephew.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Richard Yates - Revolutionary Road

Over the course of the spring and summer of 1955, this novel charts the ultimate unraveling of April and Frank Wheeler's suburban family life in the Revolutionary Hill Estate in Connecticut.

From outside, the Wheelers are happy and successful. Frank, with his stories of soldiering in Paris during the War, maintains ironic detachment from his New York job which means he keeps his air of an intense young man destined for great things. Beautiful April, with her flair for the theatre, her immaculate home and her two pink-cheeked children, is the envy of her friends. Their active social life revolves around cocktail parties with like-minded couples, who also happen to live in the suburbs but who remain passionately interested in the arts, the ills of contemporary society, the usual themes for intelligent adults. These conversations are essential for Frank and April, as they are their link to the bohemian life they had in New York City, before adulthood and responsibilities got in the way.

But April and Frank are not happy and successful, in fact their unhappiness is hardening into desperation. Frank is suffocating in the boredon of commuting and office routine. April, with her inability to love unconditionally, is drowning in domestic drudgery, her mind rotting. So April hatches a plan to rescue them from the brink: the whole family will relocate to Paris, where she will work as a secretary while Frank "finds himself". This plan, with its details (like passports, visas, beginner French lessons, selling the house), quickly takes over as the euphoria at the prospect of escape infuses everything. And so the novel builds to its painfully inevitable climax.

This book made me cry at times, as the world Yates weaves is unbearably sad. The optimism of post-war America, when the rise of the suburbs, that transitional limbo between the crowded city and the empty country, was wonderfully innovative, but crushed individuality and the human spirit along the way. The transition from footloose young adult years, when potential means the world is wide open, to the gradual constriction brought on by the responsibilities of parenthood is made all the harder for the Wheelers because their love for each other has dissolved in a mist of bitter arguments and white lies.

I loved this book. It evoked a world that's recognisable, but also alien, with the male and female characters equally well drawn. I was sucked in, and didn't want it to end. I'm now looking forward to when I inevitably re-read this book.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Index on Censorship TR Fyvel Book Award 2008 - shortlist

I've just been sent the shortlist for Index's 2008 book award, part of the Freedom of Press Awards 2008. All of the titles look interesting:

The Loser by Fatos Kongoli, published by Seren

Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism by Edna Fernandes, published by Portobello

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? by Francisco Goldman, published by Atlantic Books

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, published by Penguin

The Reluctant Fundamentalist has the highest profile but I think The Loser looks interesting. I had spotted it on The Complete Review (see here for the review) and added it to my mental tbr list. I'm now hoping to read it before the prize is announced on 21 April.

Reading Notes

I'm in the midst of Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood. It's a book I didn't plan on reading, but since I'm still waiting for The Diviners by Margaret Lawrence to arrive from Amazon it's a book I thought I'd read to pass the time...but it's such a powerful evocation of what it's like to be bullied by fellow children that I feel I must share some of it. From around page 138:
I see there will be no end to imperfection, or to doing things the wrong way. Even if you grow up, no matter how hard you scrub, whatever you do, there will always be some other stain or spot on your face or stupid act, there will always be some other stain or spot on your face or stupid act, somebody frowning.
I didn't think I'd be so moved by Atwood's book, but I'm gripped. My husband is away with work, leaving me with the time and space to explore some of the books on my TBR list, but all I can do is continue to read Cat's Eye, as I think I shan't be free to enjoy any other book until I've finished it. This Atwood book has me under a spell and I shall be writing about this more fully once I can get my head around it.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

5 kind things

The lovely Verbivore has very kindly tagged for this meme. And since it's the perfect way to round off the weekend, I thought I'd respond to it quickly!

The rules are simple:
- list 5 kind things you do for yourself
- list five kind things you do for your closest friend, partner or child
- list five kind things you have done for a stranger
- have fun!
- tag five people

5 kind things I do for myself

1. Read. As reading is my chief means of making sense of the world, and my place within it, I become anxious and irritable if I don't read enough. So reading - books, newspapers, blogs, journals - is definitely the kindest thing I do for myself!

2. Walk. I love to walk. Solitary walking is when I do a lot of my thinking. The rhythm of my feet, the very physicality of it, seems to help me think. But I also love to walk with others, as talking complements the rhythm of walking so beautifully. Walking gives a conversation space. London is tremendously walkable - a series of villages strung together with plenty of green spaces and history oozing out of the seams. Since I don't drive, I'm the quintessential pedestrian!

3. Keep this blog. Embarking on this blogging adventure has enriched my reading, by helping me to read more thoughtfully and opening me up to the vibrant world of litbloggers. I love reading other people's thoughts on books, as it provides a layer to my understanding and enjoyment of books. By blogging I've reminded myself that I love talking about books almost as much as I love reading!

4. Watch the birds in the back garden. We moved into a house with a garden last summer, and we hung a bird feeder on the washing line. I get such pleasure from watching the birds. The blue tits with their lovely colours. The pair of robins who I sometimes think would come right into the house, so inquisitive are they. The jays, the blackbirds, the wood pigeons, the sparrows, the starlings. I especially like when there are a few types of bird feeding at the same time. I even like watching the lengths the squirrels go to to get at the seed.

5. Eat in restaurants as often as my wallet allows me. I love restaurants, and the satisfaction I get from an excellent restaurant experience is akin to the pleasure a good play gives me. I waitressed all through university, so I appreciate the team work and performance behind good service.

5 kind things I do for my partner

1. Encourage him. I do my utmost to be supportive and encouraging of my husband, as I know he's brilliant and I know that my support and encouragement helps him to think he's brilliant too!

2. Iron his shirts. This is a new one for me, as I've only just started doing it. I've always been quite anti ironing - why can't society accept wrinkles and release people from the drudgery of ironing?? - but have recently started ironing my husband's shirts. And the funny thing is I'm quite enjoying it! I even looked up how to iron a shirt on youtube this evening, and it really helped me get through the pile faster. And I enjoy knowing that I'm saving my husband a chore.

3. Make him laugh. My husband has the best laugh, and I can listen him laugh all day, so making him laugh is perhaps also an act of kindness for me!

4. Keep track of his stuff. I have a good memory, so this is pretty easy for me, but I try to keep an eye on his stuff - the shoes, keys, wallet, oyster card and other paraphernalia of daily life - so that he doesn't lose things.

5. Pick him flowers. We planted spring bulbs together last autumn so I've been picking him daffodils from the garden. I can't wait for the tulips to bloom so I can pick them for him too!

5 kind things for strangers

1. Give directions. I love to help people with directions, and sometimes numerous people ask me for directions on the same day (I must have a sort of "ask me for directions" face!). Last week, I actually overheard a tourist mum say to her tourist daughter to keep an eye out for Holborn tube and I pointed them in the right direction (they were heading towards Russell Square instead of Holborn).

2. Respond to people making friendly conversation in bank queues, bus queues, etc. I like to respond if someone makes friendly chit chat of the weather variety in lines. It seems to happen mostly at the bank or post office. I think it helps break up the monotony of queuing!

3. Greet the bus driver. I get the bus from Kings Cross to work and it never ceases to amaze me how people just file on and don't even make eye contact with the driver as they swipe their oyster card. I like to greet him or her, as I figure that's the least I can do for the person who ferries me through rush hour London traffic!

4. Pick up litter in parks etc. I hate wind-blown litter, so I like to pick it up when I can so that it doesn't annoy anyone else.

5. Offer my seat on public transport to people who need it more than me. This is such a simple thing, but it happens less that it should.

So I enjoyed this! But it's late, and my husband is thinking the kindest thing I could do for him is to go to bed, so I'm tagging anyone who reads this and fancies answering the questions!

Friday, 14 March 2008

When has spring sprung?

I have fallen for a new word: phenology. It’s the observation and recording of recurring natural phenomena and has the rather charming etymology of phenomena + -logy (see here for the OED definition). Suddenly, an activity I’ve enjoyed all my life has a name! All these years of noticing the firsts of the year – the first snow drops or daffodils brightening up the garden in early spring or the first strawberries of summer or berries of autumn or the first frost as nights draw in – qualify me as an amateur phenologist of sorts. Apparently, this simple activity that so many can enjoy is becoming an increasingly important means of charting the impact of climate change on our environments. And to think I thought it was the study of bumps and lumps on the head when I first heard it today lol (because of course I was mixing it up with phrenology)

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Discovering new worlds - Richard Yates & Richard Dawkins

Richard Yates was one of those gaps in my knowledge that had become a little embarrassing (Carson McCullers is another - though at least I know I'm not alone after reading this post by Ann over on Table Talk the other day!). I vaguely knew of Yates as a writer's writer, one of those talents that had fallen out of fashion (at least in Britain and Ireland - I'd love to hear how popular/unpopular he is elsewhere). My book-loving friend Vincent raved about him. I heard rumblings that Sam Mendes was working on a film of Revolutionary Road. Then I read this article in the Observer and finally on a day trip to Ely and a visit to the marvellous Topping and Company I came across such a comprehensive selection that I had no choice but to begin at the beginning and buy Revolutionary Road.

It turns out that's the best £7.99 I've spent in a long while. I'm not going to put pen to paper (or rather finger to keyboard!) and write up my full thoughts until I've let this book percolate for a while. But what I can say is that it dazzled me, leaving most of what I've read recently in the shade. To anyone who says Then We Came to the End nails the office working experience (like this recent post on the Guardian books blog) I can now say “but have you read Revolutionary Road?” as it captured so perfectly the realities of the daily office grind.

A bit of digging showed me that Vintage are in the process of reissuing Yates as Vintage Yates. Initially dropping the first name seemed gimmicky, but the more I think about it the more I think that this is one writer who more than deserves to be known by surname only, up there with the Updikes and Bellows and the rest. And I think the covers are just so beautiful, so evocative. Check out Easter Parade:

Or Cold Spring Harbour:

Or Eleven Kinds of Loneliness:

Just gorgeous. Now that I’ve realised what a gem of a writer he is, I’m delighted that Yates has been given the full Vintage classics treatment. I can’t wait to get my hands on them. Expect Yates to pop up regularly on here from now on.

I’m also romping through Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion at the moment. I must be one of the few readers left in the UK who hasn’t read his spirited attack on all things supernatural. I’m an atheist who had a religious upbringing, and there are many people in my life still with strong faith as well as just plain loyalty to religious traditions, so I appreciate both the disadvantages and advantages of religion. So far, I’m finding it thought-provoking and interesting, even if the style is a little shouty (or “passionate”, as the cover blurb so helpfully describes it) at times.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Salt & Honey by Candi Miller

This is a beautiful written, powerful portrayal of Southern Africa in the middle of the Twentieth century, when apartheid was warping the morals of ordinary people. Koba is a sensitive young girl from a Kalahari desert tribe, a member of the Ju/hoansi, or the harmless people, in her own tongue. Her hunter-gatherer life, of family and tribe and ancestors, is torn apart when her parents are murdered by white Boer hunters in front of her. The very men who slaughtered her parents then take her away from her desert home, to live in exile alongside a white family - Marta Marais, her husband Deon and her son Mannie.

I was swept up by Koba's story. Her journey into and out of exile, with the different types of love that develops with the Marais family, is gripping. The book was literally unputdownable. Miller spent a decade researching and living the Ju/hoansi, and her dedication has paid off. This book is full of issues - apartheid, violence, politics - yet is so deftly written that the issues never get in the way of the story and the characters.

I studied a San tribe in an anthropology class as a teenager, so I knew a little about the culture and beliefs. However, I'd never considered their place in the apartheid system and entering this world through fiction was, in a way, more rewarding for me. The desert, its plants and animals, the stars and sky, was made alive to me in a way that a text book alone just can't do. So I'm planning on sending a copy to my old anthropology teacher. And I'm planning to give a copy to my sister (she's planning her honeymoon to South Africa and Namibia at the moment). In fact, I think I'll be recommending this book to all of the readers in my life!

Finally, I'd like to thank Juliet over at Musings from a Muddy Island for bringing this book to my attention. It was her great review (see here) that led me to this book and I'm so glad it did. It was also the gorgeous cover, as good cover design can often sway me.